In simple terms, Alice/Wonderland is the ideal metaphor for so many things — from education to technology to business to ‘just life.’ It can be difficult to go a single day without someone making a casual reference to the “rabbit hole” or the Cheshire Cat’s infamous advice to ‘lost’ Alice (co-opted by Robert Kennedy and many others, BTW).
That being said, most of us — myself definitely included — are far from experts on the text. Perhaps we’ve seen the Disney movie version in our heads. Perhaps we recall having the book read to us as children. Maybe we just felt a nagging connection when we saw “The Matrix” or wonder why so many stories pay homage to Carroll’s famous story.
All in all, however, a careful study of the original text probably remained outside of our experience.
As an high school English teacher, I’ve been wanting to assign and ‘teach’ Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for years.
And as a school planner/consultant, I often used images from Alice/Wonderland to help my clients/audiences grasp the challenge of moving forward into a ‘future’ that is often counter-intuitive based upon the tradition of schooling.
And as a father (of two currently very young kiddos), I also adore the magic quirks of the story as the essence of childhood itself.
I also loved the idea of asking my 10th grade Honors English students to rigorously analyze a ‘childrens’ story.
After all, this story seemed out-of-place on our reading list (Shakespeare, Chaucer, Golding, Bronte, Orwell). Assigning it appeared — on the surface — to be going ‘backwards’ on the intellectual scale in a college-prep independent school.
I wanted them to be surprised. Very surprised.
And even a bit frustrated. Perhaps a lot frustrated.
Even more, I wanted them to surprise me with what they found along the way.
I wanted them to walk me through Wonderland on their terms (not by my teacher-oriented expectations).
I wanted to follow their intellectual path: idea by idea, discovery by discovery, rabbit trail by rabbit trail, feline enigma by feline enigma, Duchess’ moral by Duchess’ moral, tea cup banter by tea cup banter, Queen’s “Off with her head” by Queen’s “Off with her Head.”
And once I committed to Alice’s story, the next question was ‘how’ to present it.
And how to really commit to the story, not just have it be an academic asterix in hindsight.
Here’s what I did *not* want:
- to lecture
- to tell them how to ‘read’ the story
- to remain reading-quiz oriented
- to assign traditional analytical essays
- to have our work remain locked away ‘in’ the classroom
- to be the sole judge/grader of my students’ work
Given my growing curiosity as to how this story would serve my students and my desire to break away from a traditional teacher/student experience, the next questions circled around the ‘how’ to frame our experience.
For the last 3 years, I’d been managing a series of classroom-based blogs. Students would respond (via comment) to a series of weekly writing prompts. Grades were assigned based on meeting minimal standards (due dates, quantity/length of responses, etc). Topics would range from dead-center to our literary discussions to more ‘free writes’ about life.
Oddly, as much as I enjoyed seeing my students use the classroom blog, I was growing weary of the way it was done. Students were dutiful and often submitted outstanding responses, but the ‘fuel’ was all teacher-based. Students did it because it was assigned. Student ownership was not really the point.
And thus something vital was missing.
So, with all that, here’s what I did:
- Blocked off 6 full academic weeks for a story that could arguably be traditionally ‘taught’/analyzed in a week.
- Had each student read The Annotated Alice so that annotated research was the point from day one, not just reading-plot-then-researching-ideas.
- Divided the students into teams based on a range of skills/personalities, seeking an instinctive ‘balance’ so that success could occur in many ways. This also meant that 2 of 3 final grades assigned were team-based, not individual. That being said, individuals were well aware that their individual work would have an impact on the grades their team was assigned.
- Told the students that they had a series of submission goals (12+ blog entries & 15+ comments on other blogs minimum) by a clear deadline, but otherwise the students were left to their own devices as to what they wrote about. I figured that peer pressure/discovery — and some intellectual nudges from me — would lead many of them to deconstruct the story in really creative ways, not just detail the plot and basic themes.
- I assigned ‘due dates’ for reading, but in truth there was no way of knowing if an individual student had kept up with the reading along the way. That — to be honest — was not the point or my motivator. I simply wanted students to be able to gauge their progress along the way and to know where their classmates were at any given moment.
- Finally — and most importantly — I truly turned the classroom over to them. With a few exceptions during the 6 weeks (vocab quizzes, 2 days of ‘advice’ I gave them along the way, 2 non-graded reading quizzes just to keep them honest, and in-class essay), the students were given the freedom to use the period as the needed, both as an individual and a team member. This meant that I spent most periods responding to technology questions, reviewing student drafts, helping kids brainstorm, keeping track of team progress, sharing various student work with colleagues via Twitter (and related networking strategies), and organizing the ‘virtual’ jury process/jury.